President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva assumed the presidency of Brazil with the commitment to protect and supposedly restore democracy. He gained global sympathy and support for promising to curb deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and fight climate change. As if his original missions were not hard enough, Lula even presented himself as a guarantor of world peace with his call for negotiations to end the war in Ukraine.
But that same Lula has presided over an almost $1 billion injection into the Russian economy through energy imports. Between February and May of 2023, Brazil replaced a significant part of oil imports from the United States with those sent from the Putin regime. The change is so profound that, in just four months, Lula’s Brazil imported more Russian fuel than the sum of the imports of the same product made in the previous twelve years. More precisely, the flow of Russian diesel to Brazil, in the first five months of 2023, was 48.7 percent greater than the total of Russian diesel imported by Brazilian companies between 2010 and 2022.
After a three-year lapse, Russia returned to the Brazilian energy market during Jair Bolsonaro's government (2019–2022). The first shipments arrived at Brazilian ports in December 2021, after Bolsonaro and Vladimir Putin began their rapprochement through a series of ministerial visits on both sides, resulting in a presidential visit to Moscow in February 2022—just days before the invasion. Yet Russian diesel imports in 2021 were trifling, all things considered, and obviously did not show any signs that they would assume the size and importance they would have in the following year by the Lula government. The purchases of cheap Russian diesel by the Bolsonaro administration served to justify the Lula’s arugment that Brazil’s rapprochement with Russia was pragmatic and aimed at guaranteeing access to fertilizers and Russian fuel.
In fact, Lula has not only taken his predecessor’s course regarding the Ukraine invasion, but also accelerated it. Throughout his diplomatic trips—including visits to the United States, Argentina, and China—and meetings with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and European leaders since January, Lula has not shied away from proposals to end the war. He also instructed his diplomats to vote against or abstain from votes in the United Nations condemning Russian aggression. These formal positions give the Brazilian government a semblance of impartiality in the conflict. But when compared with the same government's actions, they reveal contradictions.
The flood of Russian diesel on the Brazilian market resulted from a combination of opportunism, ideology, and populism. Importers prefer to buy from the Russians, who offer discounts of up to $25–35 per barrel to reach new markets and avoid sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union. Brazilian importers, including the state-owned Petrobras, have benefited from the discounts offered by the Russians. Obtaining profits from the war in Ukraine is not exclusive to Brazil. Moscow’s other partners in the BRICS—China and India—are also taking advantage of the low prices. As much as he tries to maintain apparent neutrality in the conflict, Lula, who recurrently blames the United States and the European Union for prolonging the war, not only fails to isolate Russia but seems to allow it access to the Brazilian market. Moreover, the influx of cheap fuel into Brazil impacts domestic politics and helps the Lula administration to contain inflation by cutting fuel prices while raising taxes.
By allowing imports of “blood oil” into Brazil, Lula is indirectly funding Russia’s war effort. He is also reaping the political dividends from this decision. Thanks to cheap diesel from Russia, there has been a gradual reduction in the price of diesel sold to final consumers. Lula publicly attributes this phenomenon to himself and the results of his policies.
Since assuming the presidency, Lula has repeatedly reiterated his refusal to help the Ukrainians. In January, he even received a visit from the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who tried to convince the Brazilian president to supply ammunition for the German anti-aircraft Gepard guns bound for Ukraine. The answer was no. Lula always justifies that Brazil will not enter the war or encourage war as the United States and Europe do. But what Lula paradoxically does not know, or does not want us to know, is that his choices have already placed Brazil on one side of the war.
Leonardo Coutinho is an independent researcher, consultant, and author.